10th of December: Puppetland


Oh, that wicked Mr. Punch!

Author/Designer: John Scott Tynes

From: The Indie Initiative Bundle

I heard about Puppetland game way, way back, when I first started looking into Indie Games. But alas, it was out of print, and I wasn’t into buying games in pdf.

Flash forward a great many years, and suddenly it popped up in a bundle. So of course I had to get that bundle, so that I could figure out what all the fuss was about.

In Puppetland, you play puppets in a land of puppets. The land was created by the Maker, the human who created all of the puppets, in order to keep all of the puppets safe. But the evil Punch killed the Maker, and took over as ruler of Puppetland.

Now Punch’s former lover, Judy, leads a resistance movement against Punch, while most of the puppets live in fear of the tyrant and his cruel minions. The players will play puppets in this world, trying to overthrow Punch and revive the Maker, so that all will be right again.

The game is a fair bit different than many other early Indie games. This may well be because it originated before the Indie movement really took of; apparently, the first draft of the game was created all the way back in 1995.

The rules of the game are deceptively simple. There are three:

The First Rule: A “tale” or session of the game lasts precisely one hour of real time. After that time, the game will end, and the Puppets will find themselves back in their bed again the next morning. Even if they died during the previous tale. During the hour the game lasts, you can narrate a far longer span of time in the fiction, simply by saying what amount of time elapses.

The Second Rule: When you sit down at the table playing Puppetland, what you say, your puppet says. Including “I reach for the rock to hit the Nutcracker with”. As such, all puppets will be continuously narrating their own actions: “I shall take this rock and hit that mean nutcracker over the head with it”. If someone must break character, they have to stand up from their chair – and ideally go over to the GM to whisper into his ear.

The Third Rule: Everything must be presented as if this was a story being told. This rule is mostly for the GM: The GM should always speak in the past tense, as if narrating a storybook. “The rock hit the nutcracker straight in the back of the head. ‘Crack’ said the nutcrackers head. Then he slowly fell forward and landed on the floor”. Of course, it also goes for the players, who should talk like characters in a storybook. That means that profanity is no good, while the morality of everything that happens is black and white: the good are good, and do nothing evil, while the bad guys are evil through and through.

Characters are created by selecting the kind of puppet (finger, hand, shadow or marionette), giving it a name, writing down what it is and what it can and cannot do, and drawing a picture of the puppet on the character sheet.

The overarching plot of the game is pretty well set – overthrow Punch and revive the Maker – but the individual tales could be anything: overcoming Punch’s minions, getting secret information, saving someone from Punch’s wrath or maybe interfering with Punch’s nefarious doings.

There is no system for combat, except what the GM deems a feasible outcome – bearing in mind that good should be able to carry the day in the end. Death is not usually final – at first. The 16th time a character dies, however, it will be for good.

My impression: Wow. This is a fascinating and disquieting game to read. The immediate impression is very cute and quaint – but when you dive into it, there is a really ugly side to this game. The minions of Punch – his boys are nasty creatures created from the flesh of the maker (!), and you can expect puppets to be tortured and murdered throughout the game for such heinous crimes as being unhappy.

The world of the puppets is described in just enough detail to make it both realistic and absurd. For instance, the puppets have to eat, which means sitting around, pretending to eat. Otherwise, they will grow hungry. The game is full of these quaint little details that give me a really good impression of the feel I’d want the game to have.

The rules… are weird, but I find them strangely charming. Even if they don’t give “proper” resolution mechanics of any kind, they steer the conversation, and give some general guidelines to provide the kind of story it wants. Dice or cards would get in the way, I think, particularly since there’s a limit on the time the game is allowed to take. Including a time limit is not only an unusual thing, I think it would be necessary in a game like this – it’s hard to maintain the kind of focus required to only speak in character for very long, but an hour should be fine. It also helps set the scope of each tale to roughly what could be covered in an evening’s bedtime story reading.

Speaking of that, the game has a conflict between silly children’s story and visceral horror. Where the tone ends up in any given group would depend a lot on the individual GM, and I expect the game to grow darker as the sessions go. I do not think of this as a children’s game, however.

Puppetland is not a game for everyone, but with the right crowd, I think this game could really shine. If you have someone who can relish both the humour and silliness of the puppets and the darker stuff underneath, you could tell some really interesting stories. Incidentally, I think this game has more players in common with Itras By than with Atomic Robo – it has some of the same surreal vibe and communal storytelling that Itras By also has, but not nearly as much action as Atomic Robo.

How would I use this: I would like to try this game out for a few sessions. I don’t think I would want to spend many evenings playing this game – but with hour-long sessions, you could squeeze one into an evening before a board game, or something of that kind.

It’s also a game I think I could play with new players who have a bit of an acting, storytelling or literary bent. Someone who might not want to roll loads of dice, but who can get behind the peculiar acting inherent in this game.

8th of December: Itras By

08 GiaeverGudmundsen-ItrasBy

Wonderous adventures in the surreal city.

Author/Designer: Ole Peder Giæver & Martin Bull Gudmundsen

From: The Indie Sprimg Festival Bundle

I believe I first really heard about Itras By (Itra’s City) back in 2010, when Niels Ladefoged Rasmussen and Anne Vinkel (of recent The Good Roleplayer Must Die fame) wrote a scenario for Fastaval called The Boy and the City, which was set in Itras By. Also, I know one of the authors, Ole Peder, so I was curious to look at the game he’s made.

Itras By is inspired by the surrealism movement of the early 20th century. It takes place in Itras City, a wondrous place of (literally) bull headed people, vanishing streets and anarchists smoking cigars made from flakes of the sky. It’s a city of beauty and humour, but also of strife and tragedy.

The game presents you with a very open frame for creating your characters. You can be anything or anyone you want, from a beggar in the street to something akin to a god. Before you create your characters, though, the game tells you to talk with the group and come up with a concept for the characters, and for the campaigns. Are you a club of revolutionaries, the crew of a ship embarking upon a voyage, maybe bored rich youths out for adventure – or just a group of neighbours living in the same house?

Each character is made up, first, of a concept. This is similar to many other games, but even more important, as the rules place so few limitations on your character. You will then write a background, “dramatic qualities” (aspects that you will be able to bring to bear in dramatically loaded situations) “intrigue magnets” (that the GM will use to create plots you are interested in) and supporting characters connected to your character.

Resolution is done by drawing from a special deck of cards, giving results such as: “Yes, but… The character succeeds, but there’s a tiny detail that doesn’t go quite as planned.” Or: “No, but… The character fails, but another positive thing happens instead, unrelated to what she was aiming for.” It is then up to the GM and the players to interpret the card in the situation.

The game starts off with a long setting chapter, and finishes with several sample scenarios and sample campaigns, to give you a feel for how the game works. The prose of the book is very literary, quite poetic and a tad dreamy. The whole book is liberally sprinkled with some nice drawings of some of the weird creatures and places in the book.

My impression: The book of Itras By is a beautiful thing to behold. I’d almost wish I had a physical copy, just to be able to take it out and look at. It could almost serve as a coffee table book. The art style is very appealing, and helps underline the feeling of the book exceedingly well. Meanwhile, the layout of the book is pleasing, and also supports the mood of the book.

The setting, meanwhile, is equally wonderful. I am the kind of person who has bought many a role-playing book, not with any intention to ever use it for play, but simply to read the descriptions of the setting. The setting of Itras By is like that. Each section is wonderful, and filled with great ideas and inspiration. I would love to delve further into the setting.

Which brings me to the weak point of the book: the part where you actually sit down to play with the game. This whole part seems very vague, and doesn’t really give the reader the tools to create a good game of Itras By. To be fair, this is probably at least in part because they want to give the players as much freedom as possible to create the game they want in the setting.

On the other hand, when the game tells me to come up with a concept for a character, it gives me just one short paragraph to do this. Now, in a game like Vampire, that would be fine – the game has already given me several constraints to work within, like the clans of the game and the city the game is set in. But in Itras By, anything goes. That means that a lot more work goes into figuring out who and what you want to be. This doesn’t just go for character concepts – creating a campaign concept is left very vague as well.

The problems continue when we get into Dramatic Qualities. These are the only “crunchy,” mechanical bits of your character. But the game gives very little direction as to what you’re going for here. Anything can be a Dramatic Quality – or not, depending. Depending on what? On what you feel like! Well, how many do I get? Oh, as many as you like, but between one and four is a good number.

And then, once we have our characters and get into the actual play portion of the game, the vagueness continues. The whole chapter on playing the game is mostly filled with general roleplaying advice, like how to get into character and not to try to prevent interesting things from happening to your character. All of it is great advice, and I might well give those pages to anyone playing any kind of roleplaying game – not least traditional games like Vampire or Unknown Armies. But it doesn’t really tell me how playing Itras By is different from any of those other games. The game does put a lot of emphasis on improvisation, which is not commonly found in other traditional games. On the other hand, it’s still not really something special about Itras By.

The resolution mechanic is probably the most innovative thing about Itras By, in all its simplicity. The resolution cards are simple and easy to use, but it seems like they give a lot of fodder to the story. It’s a really clever way of introducing very nuanced input to the story, without just going into different degrees of success. A “Yes, and…” result is radically different from a “Yes, but…”, and gives the players and GM some good cues for how to adapt it to the story. It also focuses on the story-based, improvisational nature of the game.

The game also comes with some “Chance Cards,” allowing you to introduce some randomness into the game. These look interesting, though I’m a little worried they might not always be beneficial to the game. I’d have to see them in play to pass judgement – it’s certainly an interesting concept, and if the group can handle them, I think it could be a great boon for a game.

From the above you might conclude that I dislike Itras By. That is not the case. I’m intrigued by the game, and I can see the possibilities for some great games in this city, using these rules. But I would have liked some more guidance for both the players and the GM, to ease them into the world of surrealistic roleplaying. As it is, I would love to play this game with players who have played a good number of Story Games and Indie rpgs before, people I know will be able to spin good stories within the loose framework of the game. On the other hand, I would not give this book to players who are not used to communal storytelling – that might well lead to disaster.

How would I use this: I would love to play a short campaign of a few sessions of this. I think this game would be very well suited to campaigns of a limited span, exploring one main storyline. On the other hand, I don’t think I would want to do a campaign with no agreed end-point – I don’t think the structure would hold up to long-term play.